Miss America endorses higher penalties for retail outlets that sell beer to minors

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As an 18-year-old high school student, Jennifer Berry went on sting operations with the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office to uncover retail outlets that illegally sold her beer.

As Miss America, Berry is taking her campaign against underage drinking to a national audience as she travels around the country focusing attention on the dangers of underage drinking and driving.

Berry, a Tulsa native who was crowned on Jan. 21, appeared at the state capitol Monday to endorse legislation that would impose bigger fines and longer prison sentences on servers and retail outlets that repeatedly sell beer to minors.

"It's still a rite of passage for teenagers to drink, said Berry, 22. "If I can save one life everywhere I go, I've succeeded."

The legislation, which passed the House Health and Human Services Committee last week, would allow fines of up to $5,000 and a sentence of five years in prison for servers caught repeatedly selling beer to minors. A person must be at least 21 to buy alcohol in Oklahoma.

The bill would also suspend a business' permit to sell beer if the company repeatedly sells beer to minors. Teenagers caught illegally purchasing beer could also face a fine of up to $900 and the loss of their driver's license for up to two years.

Berry, a graduate of Jenks High School and a student at the University of Oklahoma, said the danger of underage drinking touched her life when she was just 15. That's when a 16-year-old friend was killed in an alcohol-related crash at Grand Lake after her friend and others had been drinking.

"The first I ever had to deal with death," said Berry, who was flanked by about a dozen teenage students from across the state as she spoke to journalists. "I had seen it happen right at home."

Later, Berry became involved in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter in her hometown and worked with Tulsa County deputies in sting operations in which she attempted to purchase beer at retail outlets using her driver's license.

"More than half sold alcohol to me at 18 years old with my real driver's license," Berry said.

"It's happening all the time."

At OU, where she is majoring in elementary education, Berry has worked with the Sink if you Drink committee, an alcohol education program for incoming freshman.

Berry received support during her Capitol appearance from Miss Oklahoma Jennifer Warren, who succeeded Berry in the title after Berry was crowned Miss America in Las Vegas.

"It does cause such an impact on families and communities," Warren said of underage drinking.

Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, the measure's author, said 2,207 Oklahomans under 21 were arrested for driving under the influence in 2002 and 1,200 were under 18. That same year, 15.8 percent of Oklahoma drunk drivers involved in crashes were under the age of 21.

"We realize this is a terrible problem," Rabon said.

The measure's House author, Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, said higher fines in the legislation would pay for more enforcement activity to crack down on the sale of beer to minors.

"Kids and alcohol just don't mix," Balkman said.

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